Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Culture of Secrecy in Pennsylvania State Government

Crash data are a state secret
Pittsburgh Herald-Tribune
By Brad Bumsted
August 12, 2007

HARRISBURG - It took a horrific accident in Minneapolis with vivid TV images to prompt PennDOT to agree to release numerical ratings of bridge inspection reports in Pennsylvania.

Well, almost.

PennDOT was going to blow off a state House committee hearing and continue to withhold the information. It took a kick in the pants from House State Government Chairwoman Babette Josephs, a Philadelphia Democrat, to prompt Transportation Secretary Allen Biehler to show up at the hearing and agree to eventually release the information on 25,000 PennDOT-owned bridges. The agency previously termed the data "confidential" and "classified" and too complex for the public to understand.

But while the bridge information falls within "the public's right to know," according to Biehler's boss, Gov. Ed Rendell, the agency continues to thwart the release of data showing where the most severe vehicle accidents take place in Pennsylvania.

It points out glaring weaknesses in the state's Right to Know law, paternalistic attitudes among top state officials and a tendency in Pennsylvania's closed government culture to say "no" to the release of information.

It's flat-out hypocritical.

Where do the most serious accidents, including fatalities, occur most often? PennDOT's "crash data" would give you an idea about accident frequency and severity.

The state bridge data already are available from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Still, not everyone has the know-how to work with databases. The Trib gets the most recent federal data through Investigative Reporters & Editors. Many newspapers across the nation were using it after the Minneapolis bridge collapse.

Biehler's department already is supplying the bridge data to the feds but it refused to provide the information to Pennsylvania newspapers? Biehler claimed it would take time to get all the data together to release to the public?


It should have been on the state transportation Web site for everyone and in user-friendly fashion.

A glimpse at the road data also is available under federal law.

The federal government requires the state to report the worst 5 percent of its roads -- those with the most severe safety needs. They're available online

But that's just 5 percent of the worst accident spots. Some of Pennsylvania's data may already be out of date because of remedial work.

What if an intersection near your home is among 10 percent of the most unsafe locations? Or suppose it's ranked in the worst 20 percent of locations? Wouldn't you want to know?

Why isn't PennDOT telling us?

PennDOT turned down a state Right to Know law request for the crash data from the Trib during Rendell's first term; spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick last week said his agency has no plans to make the information available.

Kirkpatrick said that state law prevents crash data from being used against the department in damage claims. If PennDOT releases the information, it waives its protection under the law, he said.

The federal statute protects state transportation departments from having the data used against them in court.

Have you ever seen these guys when they really want to move on something? They pull out all stops, hold press conferences, file lawsuits and get legislation introduced.

Even if you accept PennDOT's legal argument, which seems convoluted, why isn't Rendell, who says he is backing open-records legislation, pushing for a provision in law that clearly allows the road data to be released and to prevent the data from being used against PennDOT?

It defies all logic to say the public has a right to know about bridge inspections but not the worst accident sites.

Brad Bumsted is a state Capitol reporter for the Trib.

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